Intercepting diplomatic messages is a lot older than GCHQ

The Doughnut – GCHQ’s Cheltenham base.

The Guardian has today revealed that the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) spied on UK allies during the 2009 G20 conference in London.

The interception of diplomatic communications is older than GCHQ and just as outwith international law.  It has been this way for decades,  despite the Vienna Conventions.  In NSA stations of old, the conventions were pinned to the wall as a joke sheet, sources told Duncan Campbell back in the 1970s.

Campbell revealed the practice of spying on allied diplomats in the first ever article on GCHQ in 1976, called The Eavesdroppers.  This triggered a Foreign Officer Legal Department investigation that concluded that what GCHQ did, even then, was a “dubious practice.”  The ’76 Time Out  piece was the trigger that led the arrest of Campbell, former sigint officer John Berry and the late journalist, Crispin Aubrey and the two year legal case known as the ‘ABC trial

The internal Foreign Office reaction to the Eavesdroppers came out when historian Richard Aldrich cited found papers in his book, ‘GCHQ: the Uncensored Story of Britain’s Most Secret Intelligence Agency’, (Harper Press, £30) indicating that the trial provoked the Foreign Office legal adviser to:

“look into whether the interception of communications between diplomatic missions in London and their home capitals was legal. He concluded that, ‘It now seems clear that it is at least a dubious practice.'”

A copy of Aldrich’s chapter is online, with permission, here. The quote is on page 360.

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